Phil Bolger, 1927-2009 – A sad, sad loss for boat design

This is certainly the best design I ever made… When I come up for judgment and they stop me at the gate and ask, ‘What’s your excuse?’ I’ll tell them I designed the Gloucester Light Dory and they’ll have to let me in.

– Phil Bolger (taken from his obituary in the Boston Globe)

For the record, I don’t think this is at all how it went down on Sunday, when Phil Bolger’s brilliant life came to a close. You don’t design the Gloucester Light Dory, and countless other great boats, and then have to answer for yourself. You get waved on through and directed to the VIP lounge. And, if you are Phil Bolger, you then walk out of the VIP lounge and begin rethinking the design of the whole place, because you know you can probably help God Himself “think outside the box.”

Our corner of the world, lovers of small boats, especially wooden and classic ones, is feeling the great loss of Phil Bolger two days ago. We here at Chine bLog are in especially deep mourning. As I have noted, the aforementioned “Gloucester Gull” was the first boat we built and was truly a thing of beauty. The sweep of the sheer is divine, the rake of the ends spot-on, the project of building her accessible to most, and the performance magical. The design has no equal, and those of us who design boats on any level accept a second rung of greatness as the best possible outcome, much the way any rock band knows it will never quite touch St. Pepper’s.

As great as the Gloucester Light Dory and a handful of other Bolger designs are (see my tribute to him from several months back), what has to set Phil apart in the historical record is his willingness to stand above convention and fashion. If you have never grabbed his 103 Sailing Rigs, you are missing out on a great text on small boat rigs. Sure, there are the many boatloads of practical advice, but the true value are the genius pieces of common sense. Bolger rants over and over, for example, about how arbitrary racing rules have dictated rig preferences for boats that are rarely – or never – beholden to those rules. He writes of the dipping lug rig:

… the dipping lug remains ideal for the use for which it has always been ideal: to produce maximum power in a straight line with minimum clutter on deck and wind resistance aloft. The cartoon shows it as an auxiliary sail on a motorboat, a purpose for which it is so much better than any other rig ever devised that it’s a monument to the rarity of common sense that its so little used.

Bolger never forgot that each boat had a purpose, and to create a design that fulfills traits unaligned to that purpose was beyond counterproductive. In some sense it is so easy – figure out the problem you are trying to solve and solve it. Period. But few ever do that, and Bolger did it almost every time out. Are some of his designs ugly as all get out? Absolutely, but read the design spec first. If you want something that allows one to bird-watch in shoal-draft water in all weather, guess what: you don’t get Rosinante. You just don’t. Bolger used to do design commentaries in the dearly-departed Small Boat Journal (readers would send in requirements and he’d knock out a sketch to solve the problem). I used to go nuts looking at the lines, but then you read the boat’s purpose and it all makes sense. No one else could so focus himself on the needs of the owner and so divorce himself from “the way things are supposed to be.”

I hope we’ll see another Phil Bolger, but I am not betting on it. Such brilliance only comes around once. Fair winds and following seas, Phil – you will be much missed and always admired.

And now, if you don’t mind, I am going to keep trying to create a design that is 1/4 of the Gloucester Light Dory.

4 Comments for “Phil Bolger, 1927-2009 – A sad, sad loss for boat design”

says:

Nice tribute, Tim. I agree with everything you said (and appreciate the gratuitous heresy too). Phil was a great one and his work and humor will be missed.

says:

Tim, thanks. I missed you on the first tribute posted yesterday, but I expect to do one more, and I’ll get you in. sorry, just an oversight on my end. Perhaps I’ll see you in St. Michaels for the festival. Email me so I have your contact info, can’t find it.

Thomas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *